29 Sep 2020

How much do New Zealanders know about euthanasia law details?

From Checkpoint, 5:51 pm on 29 September 2020

Rival euthanasia groups are trying new tactics to convince New Zealanders on how to vote ahead of the upcoming referendum.

As Kiwis prepare for the October 17 vote on whether competent terminally-ill patients can request a lethal injection or a take a lethal dose, there's debate about how much people really know about what they're voting on.

The euthanasia debate is really starting to heat up as election day looms.

Orange and purple billboards sprung up around the country in August, urging Kiwis to inform themselves on the End of Life Choice Act.

The VoteSafe website.

The VoteSafe website. Photo: votesafe.nz

It appears some people are still not sure what the ready-to-go law is about.

An anti-euthanasia group launched an online quiz asking people what they thought the law allowed - and says half of the almost 130,000 respondents think it's about turning off life support - something that is already common practice.

VoteSafe's Campaign Manager Henoch Kloosterboer says that's a real worry.

"There’s a lot of confusion out there from people thinking that it’s around legal options which already exist such as turning off life support, do not resuscitate orders, the ability to refuse treatment, and palliative medication that may hasten death. But we’re not actually voting on that, we’re voting on the End of Life Choice Act."

Henoch Kloosterboer from VoteSafe.

Henoch Kloosterboer from VoteSafe. Photo: Supplied

His quiz has a bunch of other questions that have raised the ire of the law's proponent, David Seymour, and other groups in support.

They say there is misinformation.

Catherine Marks, who was the lawyer for euthanasia campaigner Lecretia Seales, and helped draft the bill, says it is deceiving and fear mongering.

"The concern was that there is actually quite a lot of false information being put out that is creating fear and concern around the Act that is not actually factually correct in terms of what is in the Act."

Catherine Marks from VoteSmart and Yes for Compassion.

Catherine Marks from VoteSmart and Yes for Compassion. Photo: Supplied

Marks is part of a group called Yes for Compassion, which has recently launched a rival website. And it has a striking similarity to VoteSafe. It's called VoteSmart, also features orange and purple coloured boxes, and seeks to put voters at ease about the law's provisions.

The VoteSmart website with a similar look.

The VoteSmart website with a similar look. Photo: votesmart.nz

The only thing the two rival groups agree on is to stress that voluntary euthanasia, or assisted dying as proponents prefer to call it, has already passed through Parliament, and all its provisions set in stone and published online.

The referendum is binding. According to VoteSafe's quiz, 51 percent of respondents didn't know that. And the average overall score was four out of 10.

"All the numbers are showing us that Kiwis are really confused about what this is or isn’t about and essentially most Kiwis definitely do need to do more research and be more informed in order to truly use their democratic ability to cast an informed vote," Kloosterboer told Checkpoint.

But is VoteSafe misleading?

It says there is no assessment for coercion required, and doctors don't have to ask patients if they have been pressured.

But the law says once a request is made, the doctor must quote "do their best to ensure the person exercises their wish free from pressure".

So is that not enough?

"Essentially the doctors are meant to do their best, but from a legal perspective that’s a really low bar, simply to do one’s best to ensure someone is free of coercion or pressure or bullying, especially when we know that one tenth of our elderly are being the victims of elder abuse in New Zealand and four out of five of that abuse is inflicted by family members."

VoteSafe features personal stories from people against the law.

VoteSafe features personal stories from people against the law. Photo: votesafe.nz

Catherine Marks says it is watertight and there is no evidence in other jurisdictions that people have been coerced.

"If they have any concerns at any stage they have to completely stop the process, it can’t just pause. And so these are all requirements are breached they could be prosecuted and face imprisonment even so they’re very serious and the doctors are going to be quite rigorous when they do this."

Yes for Compassion has the same approach with personal testimonies.

Yes for Compassion has the same approach with personal testimonies. Photo: yesforcompassion.org.nz

Only 35 percent of responders were correct in guessing that the shortest possible turnaround from request to obtaining the lethal dose or injection is only 4 days.

Kloosterboer says overseas laws have cooling off periods, while New Zealand's does not.

"Overseas we see things like Canada which requires a 10-day waiting period, Hawai’i which requires a 20-day waiting period, even Victoria, next door, requires a nine-day waiting period.

But Marks says the Ministry of Justice and Health both report that four working days may be unlikely in practice.

"If you were in hospital the minimum could be four working days, but they say it’s likely to take much much longer than that and what they do say is that if you’re in hospital you’re probably very very close to death, in that situation. And that if you are in a residential setting, the minimum time it could be would be fifteen working days, so three weeks, but it would probably take weeks or months."

Kloosterboer defends his VoteSafe site, and his billboards and is encouraging people to go online and read the law. He says he has real concerns and fear mongering has nothing to do with it.

Marks and VoteSmart say it is a safe, workable law, which affects no one except the person requesting to use it.

The End of Life Choice Act with all its provisions can be found at legislation.govt.nz. You can read about the referendum issues at referendums.govt.nz